An MRI is an imaging technique that uses magnets to take pictures of your brain while it’s still inside your skull. The hocus pocus happens in a giant scanner that’s part half-open coffin, part world’s largest photocopier; and, you’d think we would have figured out how to make them less scary or loud by now, but science is busy working on other shit, like this knife made out of poop. The images produced by an MRI can be used to help diagnose and monitor changes or progression in MS.
When I went for my first MRI, 19 years ago, I had zero chill about an experience that felt like being trapped in a screaming tube while it tried to Morse Code my brain damage. Now I’ve had at least 25 MRI’s (my most recent one was last week), and I almost look forward to them. I mean, the world is covered in plague, so the bar has been lowered on what qualifies as an exciting outing. I got to leave my apartment, and I got to lie down for an hour, so, that feels like a win. (Note to the MRI people: a lollipop would have been nice)
Getting an MRI isn’t painful or invasive, but it can be stressful.
Rule number one of MRI-getting is you must be free of all metal and electronic devices, because according to urban legends, that could make you die. Check out this video to be scared off of earrings forever.
Holy shit, is this real?
Who am I, Bill Nye? All I know is that I once had to have an emergency MRI while I was wearing microlink hair extensions. The Banker had to run to Canadian Tire to buy pliers (we’re not really toolbox people), so he could urgently remove six million metal tubes from my head. FML. Now I wear tape-ins.
And speaking of urban legends, fellow Tripper Kathy told me her last MRI had to be stopped because her anti-frizz hair product had some kind of metal particles in it. She had to wash her hair in the hospital sink (ew) before they could proceed.
Every centre has a different policy, and some are cool with letting you wear track pants and a sports bra; but, my current facility has trust issues and they make me strip down and gown up. To hack this, I wore a simple knit dress (no buttons, no zippers) to my recent scan because getting dressed and undressed and then dressed again is for people who have the kind of energy to put their legs through leg holes more than once a day. And now I need a nap just thinking about it.
Despite being asked many, many times to confirm the absence of piercings, and past surgeries, and metal on my person, I was not asked about my Covid mask which in fact has a tiny metal bendy thing over the nose. Good thing I watched that cautionary video.
Is carbon fibre magnetic? Nobody knows. But if you use a mobility aid, you won’t be able to bring it into the room with the scanner, so consider bringing your wooden cane with your rollator or wheelchair if you can walk a few steps. Otherwise, you will be transferred in one of the MRI-safe chairs provided, or like me, you will be offered the sweaty arm of a helpful, but—I can’t stress this enough—sweaty technician.
I don’t know what it’s like where you live; but in Canada, we’re short on MRI scanners, which means we run the ones we do have 24/7. If you get an appointment at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday, try to sweet-talk whoever’s booking you, because 3 a.m. is a garbage time for everyone except vampires and werewolves and you don’t want to run into either of those assholes. If you’ve got MS you’ve got enough problems.
Your doctor might want you to have contrast dye with your MRI to help distinguish any new or worsening damage. When this is indicated, you will be injected with something called gadolinium at the half-way point of your scan.
Hold up. I thought you said painless and non-invasive?
The point is, you should eat a little something and drink some H20 before your scan, because you want to have available veins. My last scan was at 6 a.m. (barf), so I traded my breakfast smoothie for a granola bar, and my coffee for 16 chocolate covered espresso beans, because I am never in the mood for a caffeine detox.
Your scan will take about an hour, and you don’t want to have to pee. Always go right before your scan, but don’t sweat it too much. I mean, they give you a panic button, and I assume that’s what it’s for.
If you were limiting fluids to avoid peeing your pants and especially if you’ve had gadolinium, it’s super important to drink lots of water after your MRI. Your kidneys will thank you.
You will be given headphones and off-brand earplugs. I like to bring my own earplugs because
I’m fancy and high-maintenance they actually work. I also like to bring a sleep mask, so if I accidentally open my eyes I won’t be reminded I’m trapped in a machine with a Hannibal Lecter-style cage around my face.
I feel like the option to listen to your favourite music accompanied by the sound of a jackhammer just makes you hate your favourite music.
Your technician will be able to communicate with you throughout your appointment. In my experience, they don’t enjoy my jokes, and they really don’t enjoy talking about their feelings. But, if you want them to keep you updated about how much longer you’re gonna be stuck in the scanner, they love that shit.
If you’re super anxious, you can ask your doctor for valium or something similar ahead of time. Keep in mind that you won’t be allowed to go home alone, but do what you need to do to get by.
Lots of places allow you to check your results online. But be aware that disappointing results can heighten anxiety. Keep in mind that the number of lesions you might have doesn’t necessarily correspond to symptoms or disability. If you suspect your news might be hard to hear, consider having a trusted loved one with you when you log on, or wait for your neurologist to break it down for you, when they can answer all of your burning questions.
MS is hard. MS is a job. Part of the stress of getting an MRI is that it’s a reminder that you have a crappy disease. I like to treat myself like a four year old and give myself prizes on patient days. Little rewards for having to do so many unpleasant things: a latte, a cookie, a new car. I don’t know what your budget is.
Getting an MRI is a routine part of having MS, and if it sounds like I’m complaining, it’s because I am. And if it sounds like I’m exaggerating, it’s also because I am. I promise you MRIs are safe, and even if you feel trapped, you really aren’t. The techs know what they’re doing and will prop you up with pillows and cover you in flannel blankies to make you as comfortable as possible. MRIs are an important diagnostic tool, and even I can admit they’re better than the hot bath test we had before they were invented. Plus, it’s pretty cool to see where my MS lives. If you’re not sold on how even damaged brains can be beautiful, check out Lindsey Holcomb’s work. I’ve been meaning to have her do my MRI portrait since I first heard of her; and, now that I have a fresh MRI I’m hoping she’s available.